A conversation with Rohan

A photograph of me in the jumper Jess knitted me for our wedding.

V: Through your Instagram profile one can read that you are: a Polar historian, aspiring spoon carver and kolrosing enthusiast. Maybe you can start with sharing a bit about yourself with us?
R: Certainly. My name is Rohan, I’m 25, and my wife Jess and I live in Bulli, which is a suburb of a city called Wollongong in Australia. I work as an historian and for the last four years I’ve been learning to carve spoons from green wood. 

V: How did you end up being a Polar historian? 
R: I work as an historian at a university in Australia. It’s a fantastic job that allows me to split my time between teaching university students and working on my research. I’ve been obsessed with Antarctica and the Arctic since I was around seven, so when I started a PhD in History in 2015 I decided to focus on my long-term interest in the Antarctic. I ended up writing about the history of Australia’s relationship with Antarctica. I finished my PhD last year, so now I’m working on turning it into a book.   

V: Being the very happy owner of three of your precious hand carved spoons (and using them daily) i am of course very interested in learning more about your journey into this craft. Were you for example one of those who "always" turned sticks into pointy ones with your pocket knife when you were a kid? Or is it a craft that has come more to your interest as a grown up?
R: Spoon carving is something I only really discovered as an adult. I did make some bows and arrows out of sticks as a kid, but I wasn’t really interested in woodwork. The only woodwork I was exposed to involved machines like bandsaws and sanders, and I absolutely hated the noise and dust they make. It was only when my wife, Jess, read an article about spoon carving in a magazine called Taproot and showed it to me that I became interested. I fell in love with the idea of using hand tools and green wood straight from the tree to make things. Jess bought me the two knives you need to get started, and I started learning to carve by trial and error. After lots of mistakes and false starts I went on a course at the start of 2017 run by Jeff Donne, a professional spoon carver and teacher who goes by @thespoonsmith on Instagram. I’ve been carving pretty much constantly since then. 

V: Do you have a special interest in wood and trees? If so what is it with it that interests you so much?
R: I was always interested in the bush, woodlands, and forests as a kid, and I’ve also always been interested in the stories and mythologies that surround trees. That gradually developed into an interest in wood itself, and particularly in the properties of different woods. I love that 2,000 years ago people had realised that they could use birch for spoons, alder for bowls, ash and elm for wheels, yew for bows, linden for shields, sweet chestnut for chair legs, and oak for the chair top, because the properties of the wood suited those uses perfectly. Understanding and making use of the properties of wood like this is something I aspire to. 

Eating spoons made out of pear and plum wood, decorated with kolrosing. 

V: All my three spoons from you are made out of different wood. Could you share about the different wood you use for carving and also their qualities?
R: Some spoon carvers like to use the same species for almost all of their carving, because you can develop a deep understanding of that wood and how it will react to slight changes in your tools or technique. I quite like experimenting with different species as much as possible though. 

Different species often require a slightly different design, but the only real requirements for spoon wood are that it isn’t toxic, it doesn’t have a horrible taste or smell, and it dries reasonably hard. My absolute favourite wood is pear, but virtually any fruit tree is great for carving. Fruit woods like apple, plum, cherry, and nectarine are easy to carve but dry very hard, so you can make spoons that are both thin and strong. A friend of mine mostly carves spoons out of invasive species, so that he’s removing weeds from native ecosystems and turning them into something useful. I really like this approach, so I like using weeds like privet, box elder, and jacaranda. I also love using native Australian woods when I can get them, particularly casuarina, blackwood, silvertop ash, native cherry, and banksia. They’re all quite hard, even when freshly cut, but make for extremely strong, thin spoons with pretty grain patterns. I’ve used softer woods like polar and willow as well, but I found them a little too soft and fibrous to be enjoyable. 

V: Apart from spoons, what other things do you carve? And maybe something you are eager to try to carve that you still haven't done?
R: There are lots of things I love to carve, but they’re all quite similar to spoons! For example, I often use smaller, thinner pieces of wood to make butter spreaders, while I’ll try to keep larger pieces to make bowls or cups. Cups are one of my favourite things to make, but I don’t get hold of suitable wood very often. I’ve also recently started carving wooden toys, which are really fun. 
One thing I haven’t tried yet is a krympberk or ‘shrink pot’. This is a fresh branch or log that you drill all the way through to make a hollow tube. You then carve a base for it out of dry wood and fit it to the tube. As the green wood dries it shrinks and grips the base (which doesn’t shrink), creating an airtight seal. No glue is used at all, just the natural properties of wood. Shrink pots were used as airtight and watertight containers in Europe before coopered barrels were invented around 2,000 years ago, but they’re still useful for lots of different things today. I’ve seen them used to make pencil cases, which is something I really want to do. The other project I’ve had in mind for a long time is a chess set. I’d love to carve all the pieces and kolrose the board, but it will take me a long time.

V: If you were asked to pick only one type of wood as a favourite to carve with, what would that be and why? And is there a specific wood that you dream on working with one day?
R: If I could only carve one type of wood it would have to be pear. Softer woods are physically easier to carve, while harder and denser woods allow you to carve thinner, smoother, more detailed, and more durable spoons. Pear is the perfect combination of these qualities. It’s also a very beautiful wood, ranging from a pale, creamy white to a deep, mellow golden colour, and it’s perfect for kolrosing. 

In terms of a dream wood, I would love to come to Norway or Sweden and carve birch one day. The tradition of carving spoons from fresh, green wood was kept alive in Norway and Sweden, so even though I’m on the other side of the world I still carve spoons that are influenced by the Scandinvavian tradition. Birch was the most traditional wood used in Scandinavian spoon carving, and was the wood traditionally used for kolrosing, so I dream of visiting and carving some spoons from it one day. Am I allowed to say a second one? I also dream of carving rowan. It’s always been my favourite tree, originally because when I was very young I thought it had the same name as me, and later because it’s a beautiful tree that grows in my favourite place (mountains) and is steeped in mythology. So birch and rowan are my dream timbers. 

V: It is maybe a very stupid question but can one sometimes find surprises inside a piece of wood while you carve? Or is it so that you have quite a good control on what you can expect inside from the knowledge of the type of wood you have chosen and also through what you see on the outside?
R: Not stupid at all! There are some people who have an incredible understanding of wood and can predict how it will behave, but I’m not one of them. I can usually tell if a tree is likely to have interlocking or twisted grain that makes it difficult to carve (for example, if it was grown by itself in a windy, exposed location), but I’m still frequently surprised by twisted grain or knots I didn’t expect to be there. I also get nice surprises quite often, such as splitting open a log and finding more vibrant colours than I expected. 

V: Can you take us through the "typical" process when you turn wood into a spoon?
R: I get logs from lots of different sources. I have friends who are carvers and who are very generous in sharing wood with me, while I’ll also try to get some when tree surgeons are working in my local area, when trees come down in storms, or when family and friends prune trees in their backyards. 

You can carve a spoon from either the branch of a tree or from the trunk. Either way, the first step is to saw the log down to a couple of centimetres longer than the intended spoon. The next step is to split the log with an axe. The centre of a log contains pith, which is the soft, spongy stem that transports nutrients around a tree. If you leave the pith in your spoon, it will dry much faster than the surrounding wood and will cause cracks.  In some species, like elder, the pith is so soft that you can poke it out with a skewer, but normally you need to split it away. So I split the log by placing an axe right across the pith then striking the axe with a wooden mallet. If I’m using a branch I’ll split it in half to make two spoons, but for larger logs I might split it four, eight, or even sixteen times, so you can make a lot of spoons out of a relatively small piece of wood. 

Once I’ve split the log I’ll use a small carving axe to remove the bark and the pith and turn the wood into a spoon-sized rectangle of wood called a billet. The next step is to carve the ‘crank’ into the billet. Most factory-made wooden cooking spoons are completely flat from the end of the handle to the tip of the bowl, whereas most metal eating spoons have a handle that rises up from the bowl at an angle. Spoon carvers call this angle crank, and it’s what makes a spoon comfortable to eat with or functional for serving food with. I carve the crank by axing from the top of the handle down towards the back of the bowl, then coming back and axing from the front of the bowl towards the back of the bowl. This creates a gently curved billet. I then draw an outline of the spoon I want to carve on the top surface of the billet with a pencil, then use the axe to carve as close to the lines as possible. Once this is done I use a knife to carve it all the way to the lines, then use a hook-shaped knife to scoop out most of the bowl. I then use the straight knife to carve the top and bottom surfaces of the spoon, then come back and finish the hollowing the bowl with a different, smoother hook knife. 

It’s easier to get a smoother, nicer finish on spoons once they’re dried a little, so I’ll usually set a spoon aside to dry for a few days, then come back and go over it again with the knives. From start to finish it takes around two hours.

Eating spoon carved from pear, decorated with kolrosing 

V: Could you tell us a bit about kolrosing?
R: Kolrosing is a form of decoration that involves holding a knife like a pen and using the sharp tip make a very thin cut in the top surface of the spoon. You then fill the cut with a mixture of oil and a pigment like coffee or cinnamon. This creates a dark line that can be used to make all sorts of patterns. If you can draw it with a pencil you can kolrose it! I’ve heard kolrosing compared to tattooing wood, but it’s most closely related to scrimshaw, which is the same technique of filling carved lines with pigment but on bone instead of wood. 

Kolrosing dates back to at least the Vikings, when crushed bark or coal dust was used as the pigment. It’s been practiced continually since then, particularly by the Sámi People of northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Kolrosing is my favourite part of spoon carving. The only problem is that it only works with certain woods. If a wood has open pores, like ash, the pigment soaks into the pores and stains the whole spoon rather than just filling the lines. It also needs to be a pale wood, because there are no natural pigments that stay white, so it can’t really be done on dark woods. It also helps if the wood is dense and close-grained. So pear is the best wood I’ve tried, but privet, cherry, box elder, apple, and poplar also work well. Birch was traditionally used, so I’d love to try kolrosing birch one day. 

V: Do you find wood carving to be a meditative craft for you and what does this craft hold of meaning to you?
R: Absolutely! I normally describe it as creating a flow state, but the concept is very similar. It is an immersive activity that forces you to slow down and focus on small details and movements. It’s very easy to become completely absorbed in carving and lose track of time, and even more so with kolrosing. So I think it’s enormously beneficial psychologically. 

V: How would you decribe the experience of eating with a hand carved wooden spoon to a person who haven't tried it yet?
R: I think the best thing about eating with a carved wooden spoon is its gentle warmth. A wooden spoon doesn’t get hot when you eat hot food or cold when you eat cold food. I didn’t realise how unpleasant a hot or cold metal spoon can be until I started eating with wooden spoons. It’s also a much quieter experience, because you don’t have the sound of metal scraping on ceramic. There’s a growing field of research into the mental health benefits of incorporating wood into your life, whether it’s wood panelling or wooden spoons. Humans seem to have a natural affinity with wood, so eating breakfast with a wooden spoon is just a really positive, pleasant way to start the day. 

V: What is your very favourite thing to eat with a wooden spoon? I think mine is porridge...or ice-cream. 
R: Great minds think alike! Porridge and ice-cream are my favourites too, though I also use wooden spoons for things like rice, stir fries, and salads. Soup is wonderful with a wooden spoon, but you do need a spoon with a deeper bowl for it to work really well. They’re quite tricky to make, so I’m only just getting the hang of making nice soup spoons. 

The cup I bought from Alex Yerks. It’s my favourite cup, so I take it everywhere from hiking to work instead of a takeaway coffee cup. 

V: If you were to learn a new craft what would that be and why?
R: Knitting! I’ve always loved knitting, all the way back to when my grandmother knitted me a teddy bear called Hamish, then knitted Hamish and I matching red jumpers. My wife, Jess, taught herself to knit a couple of years before I started carving spoons, so we’ve been learning our separate crafts alongside each other for a few years. I asked Jess to teach me to knit, so I’ve just finished my first practice square. I’m hoping to make a scarf over the next few months. 

V: What inspires you?
R: I find inspiration in a lot of places. Since my job involves spending a lot of time thinking about the past, I do take a lot of inspiration from history. For example, in my work I discovered that the first people to spend a night sleeping on Antarctica were two Sámi men called Per Savio and Ole Must. They had their carved wooden cups called guksi with them, so that story inspired my interest in carving cups. I find inspiration in a lot of books and poetry too. One of my recent kolrosing patterns was inspired by the opening line of ‘Crossing the Bar’ by Alfred, Lord Tennyson; “Sunset and evening star, and one clear call for me”. Another one was the constellation Lyra, because Jess and I had just finished listening to the audiobook of His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, and one of the main characters in the series is called Lyra. It’s our favourite book, so I felt I had to do a Lyra spoon! More generally, I also find inspiration in nature, particularly the mountains and the sea, and in mythology. 

V: Apart from carving what do you like using your time on?
R: Work and carving take up most of my time, but I’m fortunate to have both a job and a hobby I love. I also like hiking, I’m learning to knit, and I’m constantly trying to improve my cooking skills. 

A photograph of me around halfway up Mount Kosciuszko.

Using our cups at the top of Mount Kosciuszko. I bought the cup on the right from an American spoon carver called Alex Yerks back when I was first starting out. I then made the cup on the left when Alex came to Australia and taught a workshop on how to carve them.

V: Last december you and your wife hiked to the top of Mount Kosciuszko (the highest point in Australia). Which had been a long-held dream of yours. Do you have a dream you hope to fullfill this year?
R: My dreams are quite modest for this year compared to last year! The trip to Kosciusko was something we’d planned for a few years as a way to celebrate finishing my PhD. This year I’d like to knit a scarf and complete some new hikes near our home. I do have a lot of other long-held dreams though. I’ve always loved Norway, so I dream of visiting Norway and Sweden, and possibly spending some time carving and learning Norwegian. I also dream of visiting the island of St Kilda in Scotland, which I’ve loved since I first read about it around six years ago. 

V: A quote or saying that has a special meaning to you and why?
R: There are lots, but I can narrow it down to two from His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. The first is “For a human being, nothing comes naturally. We have to learn everything we do.” The second is “Tell them stories. They need the truth. You must tell them true stories, and everything will be well, just tell them stories.” I see this is a reminder that storytelling is one of the most important things we do as human beings to communicate with each other and make meaning in our lives. 

V: Thank you so much for having taken the time to answer all my questions. And for letting me share about you here on my blog! It has been such a lovely and inspiring experience getting to know you a little bit better. I thought it could be a nice way to end our conversation with asking you what you are most grateful for in your life right now?
R: I’m grateful for many things, but the day before I received your questions I happened to be thinking about how grateful I am that I started spoon carving. Not only is it a deeply enjoyable hobby, but it’s given me a much healthier work-life balance. I used to struggle to switch off from work, but spoon carving has really helped to make my life healthier and more balanced. I’ve also made friendships through spoon carving that have enriched my life. I’ve always been quite shy, but carving is just a great way to create connections with people. So right now I’m most grateful to Jess for showing me the article that sparked my whole obsession with spoons. 

Instagram: @polarsloyd